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A lesson in criticism for an unskilled homeopath

June 30, 2013

I haven’t written anything on homeopathy for a while, because, well, it’s a dull subject. It’s difficult to keep the reader’s attention with it because anyone who has read one good debunking already knows it’s absurd, and anyone who is in denial has already slammed down the steel doors of non-perception. But as someone recently responded to an article on the topic, I will feature the comment here, in a post all of its own.

The commenter clearly doesn’t understand what criticism is or how it works, and therefore doesn’t know how to do it effectively, so I will offer a few tips.

But first, the comment:

elainelewis June 30, 2013

Why is the author so monumentally obsessed with homeopathy? Everything you accuse homeopathy of is actually the case with the people you support–orthodox medicine–which is VERY dangerous, and don’t take my word for it, just listen to their ads! “This medicine can cause serious infections which may lead to death….” UNBELIEVABLE!!! If this isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is! You “skeptics” ought to just lie low and hope no one notices how truly dangerous “scientific” medicine really is!

The first thing to be noted here of course is that this is not a defense of homeopathy. Many readers no doubt will already suspect that the comment didn’t address any of the points raised in the original post either.

The original post was about the US National Center for Homeopathy producing a promotional video that in fact failed to support homeopathy, and preferred instead to attack mainstream medicine. This commenter has simply repeated the same tactic in the comments, rather than deal with the criticism.

Judging by repeated experience, this is because —

homeopaths don’t understand how criticism works.

They don’t know how to respond to it, and they don’t know how to do it either. They can imitate such behavior, but the how and the why is clearly shrouded in mystery for them. It’s almost as if their entire critical faculties have been switched off. (Ha ha.)

So let me spell out some of the elements of successful criticism for @elainelewis and all the others…..

Criticism is essential for growth. It is a positive thing which involves improvement. When it is not done properly, there is no way of telling whether one thing is better than another. I notice that you, Ms Elaine Lewis, couldn’t really manage to argue that homeopathy is better than mainstream medicine. You only got as far as implying that it may be equally dangerous, and had no idea how to go about making a case that homeopathy is better. You were limited by your multifaceted ignorance to simply shouting the conclusions you desired.

Criticism also involves asking questions about the subject being criticized, and trying to answer them. You should have first asked yourself the question “How dangerous is mainstream medicine?” and then tried to find an answer. Instead you simply invented the answer you wanted without checking it out, and vaguely asserted it. This makes your criticism weak, and worse (for you) it demonstrates your ignorance. Had you looked, you would have discovered that there is an answer — a multitude of highly specific answers in fact — to that question. By not asking yourself that question first, you were in no position to make a critical statement about it. But you failed to recognize that too, and wound up exposing yourself to the embarrassment of having your position publicly demolished. 

You probably don’t feel embarrassed right now though, and probably never feel embarrassed when this happens to you, because you don’t even realize what has happened — because you don’t know how criticism works. Your thorough-going and carefully maintained ignorance has anesthetized you to it.

But I will try to explain it briefly. It’s really not that hard, but it does require reading to the end, and breathing calmly but regularly.

Modern medicine is in great measure about balancing the risks with the likely benefits of various forms of treatment. Massive data collection, detailed research into physiology and the biochemistry involved in various treatments is part of this. You can, by definition, choose any approved medicine and find detailed information about which risks are involved, for which patients and which circumstances it is contra-indicated. 

Your comment shows absolutely no awareness of these facts, because you failed to ask yourself the relevant question, before bothering other people with your ignorant, self-invented and self-serving answer. To make your ignorance even clearer, you think you have a good knock down point to end with:

You “skeptics” ought to just lie low and hope no one notices how truly dangerous “scientific” medicine really is!

So, sleepy-head, given that we already know in tremendous detail how dangerous mainstream medicine is, do you know how dangerous homeopathy is?

Uhuh, haven’t thought about that either.

Well, do homeopaths consider it dangerous? The dangers of vaccination, for example are published by government medical authorities. The method by which data are collected is both rigorous and transparent. Contra-indications for particular vaccines are listed, and the risk assessments are stated loud and clear. How does homeopathy compare? Here in Germany, for example, the National Association of Homeopaths doesn’t have any information on risks of homeopathic vaccine substitutes at all. Instead all they talk about is “freedom of choice”. That’s because they don’t know how to make an informed decision, and therefore can’t help anyone else make one.

Another example, Thomas Sam, a homeopath in Australia who was convicted of manslaughter after his infant daughter died due to his insistence on treating her with homeopathy. What did he do wrong? He followed the protocol perfectly. Theoretically the treatment should have worked. Why didn’t it? The Homeopathy Foundation of Australia’s response was simply to remove his profile page from their website.

Why didn’t homeopaths try to find out what went wrong? Is it because they don’t know how?

Criticism isn’t just about insisting your side is right. It’s about working out what the truth is to the best of your ability before you invest your emotions in a particular side, and before you open your mouth. It’s embarrassing to be asked a question, after having taken a stand, which you haven’t already asked yourself. If you don’t know the answer it means you’re wasting everybody’s time and embarrassing yourself.

You decided to comment on that post, but you didn’t deal with a single one of the straight forward and (I say without need for modesty) utterly devastating arguments I leveled at the National Center for Homeopathy. About two dozen points of argument, on a quick count — and you responded to none of them. Obviously, because you didn’t know how. Every other homeopath who has ever commented here has also avoided answering any criticism. Yet they still find something to comment about. And you call ME obsessed! 

I will repeat one of the main points of that post here to close with, because — not understanding how criticism works — you clearly need some guidance on how to start. Well start here. Answer this question for yourself. Honestly. But don’t post another evasion. Okay?

So, to repeat: The NCH used a hypothetical example in their video to explain how homeopathy works. High blood pressure, they said, can be treated with normal medicine, but that just “suppresses the symptoms”. If you stop taking the pills the high blood pressure will come back. But a homeopathic treatment however, won’t merely suppress the symptoms, but will “heal the cause” and “cure the person permanently”.

Now that’s a very strong claim. Why don’t they have the studies to back it up? Don’t say that it “can’t be tested” — because it can. And why is the NCH using a hypothetical example — why not a real which has already been studied? Could it be that after 200 years it still doesn’t have any real studies? Any good ones, I mean — not those “150 supporting studies” which add up to more like zero.

Or maybe it’s because they don’t know what a good study would even look like?

...

Posted by Yakaru

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10 comments

  1. Well said. I don’t think I’ve seen it in quite these terms, before, but it’s probably the most accurate description of the problem I’ve seen in a while.

    A similar vein that comes to mind is how a lot of people debate politics. They aren’t interested in criticizing policies to find the most effective way to deal with the issues, they’re into badmouthing the competition with buzzwords. For them, it’s not about doing good, it’s about whose side you’re on.


  2. Thanks, Bronze Dog.

    Politics is a good analogy. I almost wrote it was like sport, but in sport there are goals and a scoreboard. Maybe they’re like football hooligans who haven’t realized that their team plays in the 6th division and always finishes last.


  3. Nice post, Yakaru. The topic of what is criticism and how to respond to it is a good one. Much better than the easily-debunked topic of homeopathy itself!

    I used to be afraid of modern medicine, too, for no good reason other than listening to the various quacks telling me I should be. I say for no good reason because I’ve only always been helped by doctors and the same is true for my friends and family. I hadn’t ever assessed the risks for anything in the way you suggest, Yakaru, because I didn’t know how to. I owe my life to modern medicine at least once, and probably twice over, yet I was afraid of it. Go figure.

    What you say here reminds me of something said by the woman who calls herself the SkepDoc said. (Please forgive me for not looking up her name.) She concurs that there are, naturally, some problems with modern medicine. We haven’t figured everything out. But even if you say modern medicine is only 50% proven to be effective (she believes the overall number is higher but uses that figure to illustrate her point) that is far safer than something that is 100% disproven.

    @BD, excellent point re: politics.


  4. Thanks, Mariah.

    I think skeptics tend to over-emphasize the extreme absurdity of the dilutions when criticizing homeopathy. It can make it sound like complex math is needed to debunk it, and who cares about complex math when “it works for me”?

    The law of similarities – the idea that “like cures like” – is much more easily and swiftly exposed as an absurd and fanatical ideology with no basis in human physiology. And I do think it’s worth shining a light on their general behavior. The few comments I’ve had to delete from this blog have mostly been from fly-by homeopaths screaming irrelevant insults, just like Elaine Lewis — who, it appears, is a homeopath registered with the NCH referred to in this article.


  5. One comparison I’m thinking about making about the Law of Similars is that it’s like the frog spell in the Final Fantasy series. It turns a healthy character into a frog and a frog into a healthy character. It flips a boolean flag for the symptom, and everyone knows humans are just like video game characters.


  6. Two more comparisons for the Law (sic) of Similars.

    1. Repeated small and increasing doses of some poison (perhaps it is arsenic) over a period of time can render a human immune to quantities of the poison that would otherwise kill them.

    2. The tap water in Samoa used to contain about 30 varieties of micro-organism that would cause illness in foreigners. Samoans who drank the water from an early age had a resistance to the micro-organisms.

    In both those examples, the phenomenon is that repeated prior exposure in small amounts leads to a form of immunity. But in neither example would the treatment help someone who was already sick/poisoned.

    In homeopathy I suspect (I am not sure) the “treatment” is given to sick clients after they contract whatever illness it is they might have.

    I might be wrong, maybe homeopaths treat patients before the patients become sick, I don´t know. I wonder how many homeopaths are former insurance salespeople ? Payment in advance for a potential service in the future seems to be a similar business model. Alternatively, maybe they are reformed snake oil or ti-tree oil salespersons (e.g. Marlo Morgan).

    Sadly, one of the underlying motivations is the money needed to survive in an urbanised environment removed from primary sources of food, and many people will adjust their public masks in whatever way necessary to gain financial reward. (Hence the cases where the public mask is dispensed with if ever they discover they have an ailment that their cure fails to remedy, and after ditching the mask they become temporarily born-again patients of conventional medicine.)


  7. Hi,

    Here’s some news from the UK that you may like. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have upheld a number of complaints against Homeopaths regarding the claims made in their advertising. There is quite a long list of illnesses that they can not claim to cure.

    Here’s a link.

    http://www.nightingale-collaboration.org/

    The Nightingale Collaboration is an organisation who set out to address false health claims made by advertisers irrespective of the modality.


  8. Thanks for the link, Andy.

    That’s good news. I hope some of this starts to influence things here in Germany. Homeopathy and all kinds of woo are extremely popular here, especially within the medical profession.


  9. “Now that’s a very strong claim. Why don’t they have the studies to back it up? Don’t say that it “can’t be tested” — because it can.”
    There is no one shot remedy for High blood pressure or any other disorder. Each person with a given condition is matched to the best remedy fitting their particular case. Testing what must be hundreds of remedies for a given disorder would not be possible.
    Thanks.


  10. Thanks you for commenting Nic.

    Really, you don’t need to convince me that homeopathy “can’t be tested”. You should first try convincing all the homeopaths who claim that it has already been tested and is spectacularly successful.

    Unfortunately, you commit the same errors that this post highlights, and even more unfortunately, you will not be capable — for reasons also explained in the post — of understanding the criticism that follows.

    You assert “there is no one shot remedy” as if it is a fact. It isn’t a fact. It’s just a vacuous assertion, made without evidence. To establish a fact, you need to do more than merely assert it.

    Before you can even think about matching people to “the best remedy”, you need to know what the best remedy is. Again, simply asserting “this is the best remedy” doesn’t make it so.

    If you “can’t test it” than you also can’t possibly know that this or that remedy is “the best” for any given case.

    Even worse, you can test it. It is completely and utterly and absolutely possible to test this. Let the homeopaths choose “the best” remedy for each individual case, and then check how many patients (compared to the control) never ever have high blood pressure ever again.

    Or make the claim slightly less idiotic, and just check how many patients get reduced blood pressure.

    But trying to have it both ways — “I know it works and it can’t be tested” just demonstrates you don’t understand how testing works.



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